Since Labor Day, the Wall Street Journal has been running an online
poll asking readers for their predictions of a Clinton-Gore “October
Surprise,” that is, a trumped-up event requiring executive intervention
to make the president and his party look good, and thus boost Gore’s
election chances. What trick will Clinton pull this month? Readers
speculated about smears of opponents, ethnic pandering, brokered peace
deals, a resignation, intervention in the oil markets, a Gore-style kiss
between Bill and Hillary, and many other public-relations gimmicks.
But the top guess, with 156 entries, was war. Of course. No president
ever went to war believing it would be bad politics. Journal readers
further guessed that the targeted country will be Iraq, which readers
rightly see as the president’s handy whipping boy during two terms in
office. Between relentless bombings and a mass starvation campaign that
Madeleine Albright has deemed “worth it,” Clinton the humanitarian has
presided over a man-made disaster in Iraq. He would gladly continue this
in order to boost the election prospects of Clintonians.
But the origins of Iraq campaign prop are actually pre-Clinton. When
Iraq first annexed its ancient province of Kuwait during a dispute about
oil prices, it was shown that Saddam believed he had secured agreement
from U.S. ambassador April Glaspie and a group of visiting U.S. senators
including Bob Dole. Then George Bush turned a border oil dispute into a
world-historic crime. Bush dropped bombs and his popularity soared to 90
percent, but, alas, his timing was off and the war bump dwindled by
These were the last days of the Cold War, when Republicans and
conservatives could be counted on to applaud any military intervention.
Politics, it was said, should stop at the water’s edge, which is why
politicians always preferred foreign meddling to shore up their personal
power. From the early 1950s until the late 1980s, only Murray N.
Rothbard and his circle on the right, and principled elements on the
left, carried on the Old Right tradition. Born in opposition to World
War I, and carried over to opposing FDR’s drive to war, this tradition
raised fundamental questions about the power motives behind
international military campaigns.
In the late 1980s, as the East Bloc crumbled, the libertarian right
saw that there was potential for fundamentally shifting the
political/ideological configuration. We began to work with dissidents
within the old conservative movement who saw that the best “peace
dividend” at the end of the Cold War would be a restoration of the
freedoms that Americans had lost during the many decades when government
built up weapons of mass destruction at taxpayers’ expense.
Hence, the libertarian and “paleo” right worked with principled
members of the Old Left to forge a new approach to understanding the
role of the warfare state, which was not to protect Americans against
foreign governments, but to protect our own government from having its
power challenged by American citizens. It was long past time that
American citizens stood up and defied the military-industrial complex,
which had become as much an instrument of domestic collectivism as the
welfare and regulatory state.
We had barely put together the coalition when the U.S. bombings of
Iraq began. We swung into action, trying to get the word out about the
lies of U.S. war propaganda and attempting to shore up the opposition.
We were regarded as a politically eccentric bunch back then — isn’t the
right supposed to love war? — but this turned out to be a foretaste of
things to come. Today you are more likely to encounter opposition to
foreign military meddling on the right than the left (which has warmed
up to the warfare state as an instrument of international social
The 1990s have shown the political right how a corrupt Washington
leadership uses military intervention to bolster its credibility.
Clinton carried on with Bush’s war on Iraq, with an entire decade of
sanctions and bombings. He attempted “humanitarian” interventions in
Somalia that accomplished nothing but social destabilization. He
inspired international waves of anti-U.S. feeling, as resentment against
occupying federal troops grew in every corner of the world.
And then came Kosovo. From Clinton’s point of view, the timing was
perfect to distract from the meltdown of this administration after the
Lewinsky fiasco. But civilians in Serbia paid a heavy price for his
peccadilloes. April and May 1999 were months of horrible bloodshed for
both Serbs and Albanians, as NATO missiles struck civilian
infrastructure, a passenger train, residential areas, villages, a
marketplace, the grounds of a hospital, a jail, the Chinese embassy,
private cars, and lots of tank and truck decoys set up by Milosevic.
More than 1,300 cluster bombs ended up killing between 500 and 2,000
innocent people and doing untold billions in property damage. “This is a
fight for justice over genocide, for humanity over inhumanity, for
democracy over despotism,” said Clinton’s delusional secretary of
defense. Even in the face of such outrageous claims, which implicitly
demonized the war’s opponents as partisans of genocide, this war was not
supported by an overwhelming majority of public opinion. On the
Republican right, an amazing and wonderful thing happened: it became
solidly antiwar. The House leadership, under pressure from outraged
constituents, led an effort to get a congressional vote on the war.
No longer could the antiwar faction of American popular opinion be
neatly divided between liberal peaceniks and conservative warhawks.
Left-liberals stood by their man through adultery and war crimes, while
the conservative right worked its way back to its old post-World War I
position that war is nothing but a government racket to steal our
freedoms. For the first time in the postwar period, a solidly
middle-class antiwar party went into full-scale opposition to the
military designs of the central state.
American history is strewn with politicians who used foreign
adventures to bolster their domestic political standing. But the idea of
an “October Surprise” in particular is of recent vintage. It began with
the charge by the political left, backed by no shortage of evidence,
that in 1980, the Reagan campaign arranged for Iran to hold the American
hostages until after the election and release them at Reagan’s
inauguration. Conservatives at the time dismissed such charges as the
ravings of former Stalinists trying to discredit the savior of the free
Two decades later, it is the Right that has come to understand how
the military can be manipulated for political reasons. Not only that: we
fully expect it. Hence, the Journal’s editorial page saw that the
Clinton regime would bring about an “October Surprise” if it could get
away with it. And the Journal’s readers — not members of the Stalinist
left — are inclined to think that it will be one or another military
trick. They are right now, just as the left was right before, and the
right was correct before World War II.
America was born in love of liberty and opposition to a standing
army. The two go together. Moreover, “of all the enemies to public
liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises
and develops the germ of every other” (James Madison). And this is a
truth that neither the Left nor the Right has fully understood for a
very long time. But if Clinton does pull a military stunt to put Gore in
office, the remnants of militant internationalism within the Republican
Party won’t survive.